In Paul Thomas Anderson’s sweeping vision of sunbaked ‘70s Southern California, gumshoe Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is woken up by an ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fey Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), caught up in a messy situation. The rest of Inherent Vice feels like that confusing moment between being awake and being asleep, grabbing at sensible threads among a slew of disorienting details.
At first, the private investigator begins the search for his ex’s new lover, a real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann that has disappeared. Shasta suspects Mickey’s wife, who has been seeing a lover of her own, and as Doc visits her home he stumbles onto a sexy party she’s hosting for the LAPD, all of whom seem unconcerned by her husband’s absence.
Soon, Doc is navigating Aryan Brotherhood biker gangs, desert-set sex parlors, hippie music cult/communes, coke-fueled dentists’ offices and a massive cuspid-shaped building with a golden tip, all in pursuit of a missing person’s case concerning a man who might not be missing. In other noir-influenced stories about a man just outside the law, Doc would be the guy to get to the bottom of this all. Instead, he’s lost in the clouds of recently sparked joints and his own general confusion.
Joaquin Phoenix has already delivered a career-best performance as the lead in another Paul Thomas Anderson film (The Master), but as the muttonchop-clad hippie hero Doc, he’s again at his best. Slipping in and out of states of sobriety, Phoenix’s Doc tries to retain a veneer of professionalism even as his natural tendencies won’t allow him to refuse a quick bump of coke while on the job. The role gives Phoenix the chance to lend his chameleon-esque qualities to a goofy, affable character with funny affectations, like slurring the details of a sentence too complicated to remember fully.
Unlike other Paul Thomas Anderson films with large casts of notable actors, Inherent Vice lacks the ensemble feel of Boogie Nights or Magnolia. Nearly every scene follows Phoenix, with the exception of a couple short glimpses into the home of Josh Brolin’s LAPD lieutenant “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. Phoenix’s character is a joy to watch, but as peripheral characters with complex backstories of their own cycle in and out of the picture, the narratives becomes incomprehensible and it’s hard to determine at what point we got lost in the story. The feeling is not dissimilar to what Doc experiences in Inherent Vice either, as he too seems surprised by each new twist to the investigation.
Doc continues to run into Bigfoot as they conduct their separate enquiries, and intermittently the two recently partner-less investigators will work with one another to parse together Inherent Vice’s mysteries. If the crew cut wasn’t evidence enough, Brolin’s militant demeanor as Bigfoot serves as an amusing contrast to the easygoing Doc. He’s a family man and part-time TV actor or extra, with a disarming penchant for chocolate-covered frozen bananas. Emerging from two distinctly different cultures as the ideologies begin to crash in the wake of the Manson Family Murders, Doc and Bigfoot juggle a desire to solve the case with their mutual mistrust for each other’s identity.
Aside from Brolin, only Waterston’s role as the hippie femme fatale seems large enough of a supporting part to merit awards consideration. She enters the film from the shadows of Doc’s home, and reappears sporadically like an ethereal vision in the night. Her performance is alluring and seductive, as she speaks to Doc in enigmatic phrases that lead him to new revelations. Like many elements of Inherent Vice, notably Joanna Newsom’s character/narrator, it’s hard to tell how much is intended to be real and what’s imagined by our drugged up protagonist. All these moments soon begin to coalesce into a bizarrely engrossing, decidedly trippy comedic mystery.
Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon and the hysterical Martin Short all make strong appearances in two or three scenes to guide Phoenix’s Doc through the seedy underbelly of Paul Thomas Anderson’s version of Los Angeles; however, none of their performances should come as a shock to those familiar with the actors’ previous works. More surprising are the memorable but small parts played by Hong Chau (as Jade, who works at the aforementioned sex parlor) and Sasha Pieterse (as Japonica, a troubled teenager with an uncomfortably close relationship with Martin Short’s Dr. Blatnoyd).
In Inherent Vice, Anderson abandons some of his long-take habits in favor of more intercut scenes, which isn’t to say he’s completely changed his style. While there are fewer impressive tracking shots, he’s continued to create compelling visuals with the aid of frequent collaborator, cinematographer Robert Elswit. Both the composition of his frames and the attention to detail in the film’s art direction serve to effectively place the Inherent Vice within a moment in history. The mood is also distinctly of its era, and with Anderson’s thoughtful approach, it’s stacked with context about life in the 1970s.
While the film demonstrates Paul Thomas Anderson’s command for his craft, the confusion elicited by its narrative may ultimately be too alienating for most viewers. Inherent Vice is not concerned with plot like Anderson’s first three films, and it’s not an intricate examination of character like There Will Be Blood or The Master. Instead, it’s a convoluted movie full of ideas that evokes a sense of the collective mindset of its characters: bewilderment.